Anticipation, Part 4: Trust & Obey (Matthew 1:18-25)

Luke tells the story of Christ’s birth largely from Mary’s perspective, while Matthew tells it largely from Joseph’s. No attempt is made to bring them into alignment in an artificial way. Instead, each provides historical facts from a different point of view. And yet, both accounts are needed to get a fuller depth and perspective on the whole story. What’s common to both accounts—among other things—is the virgin birth of Jesus. That’s the non-negotiable for each writer. As the Apostles’ Creed says:

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.

It’s a reminder that God still does the supernatural. The surprise, however, is that he uses ordinary people to carry out his extraordinary plan. According to rabbinic tradition, Mary would have been about 14-16 years old at her engagement, and Joseph would have been about 18-20. They were two ordinary young people. Godly people, to be sure, but ordinary just the same, made of the same “stuff” as everybody else.

All through the Bible, we see God using the most unlikely people to do his best work. Sometimes we miss it because what God does through them is so extraordinary, we just assume he does it through extraordinary people: Moses parting the Red Sea with just a rod. David dropping Goliath with just a rock. Elijah calling down fire from heaven with just his voice. Next to these folks, we might feel like underachievers. And we might be tempted to say, “How could I ever be like any of any of those people? What’s the use? I’ll never amount to anything in the kingdom of God.” 

What we often miss is that it was God who did the extraordinary deeds, not his people. It was Godwho parted the Red Sea, not Moses. It was God who guided the trajectory of that sling stone, not David. It was God who sent the fire to Mount Carmel, not Elijah. Not only that, in between the mountaintop experiences of those people’s lives, we miss the struggles they had in the valley—the wavering, the uncertainty, the self-doubts, the frustrations, sometimes even the deep depressions and wrestlings they had with God when pushed to their limits. 

Mark it down: God can use ordinary people to carry out his plan. So, don’t ever look at your life and think, “I could never be used by God. I don’t have the gifts, or skills, or talents that others have.” Absolutely not. God is not attracted to your abilities, nor is he distracted by your inabilities. What’s important to him is your availability.

Joseph made himself available to God’s plan. He trusted God’s Word and obeyed God’s word, even when it was hard. In many ways, Joseph is the unsung hero of the Advent. What would have happened in history had he not obeyed the Word of the Lord? Would Christmas have happened at all? His life reminds us that God’s people prepare for Christ’s coming by trusting and obeying him. So, let us prepare well for the Lord’s return.

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Such Great Faith (Matthew 8:5-13)

There are only two places in the Gospels where we read that Jesus is “amazed” or “astonished” at anything, and they both have to do with faith. The first is in Mark 6, where Jesus comes to his hometown, and he is amazed at the Jewish people’s lack of faith. The second is in Matthew 8, where Jesus is amazed again, this time by the presence of faith—and it’s in a place we might not expect it. 

A Roman centurion asks Jesus to heal his servant, acknowledging that he didn’t even need to be present in his home to make it happen. “Just say the word,” he said, “and my servant will be healed” (Matthew 10:8). Jesus “was astonished and said to those following him, ‘I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith’” (Matthew 8:10). 

What made the centurion’s faith “great”? Not the amount of it but the object of it. Indeed, the greatness of your faith depends on the greatness of its object. And Jesus is the greatest of all time. Faith in him is never wasted. How much faith did the centurion need for his servant to be healed? Just enough to call on Jesus. He did call, and he got his miracle. The grace of Jesus extended beyond the borders of his own country all the way to the pagans, which surely must have infuriated many in the religious establishment.

We might wonder why miracles seem to be somewhat rare in our day. Whatever the answer to that question, we do know that the miracles of Jesus were a sign of who he was in the world. They were also a sign of where he was taking the world—to a grand telos or goal of perfect peace and restoration of God’s good creation. It will be a time when all that is wrong in the world will be made right again, and all that is sad will come untrue (Tolkein). As Tim Keller has said, “Miracles are not primarily suspensions of natural laws. They’re the restoration of natural laws. Death and decay and suffering are the suspensions of God’s natural laws, and Jesus—when he was here—started putting them back.”

For now, we walk by faith in Christ, trusting that he will assuredly accomplish his grand telos. To be part of that telos, we must recognize who Jesus is—not just a great moral teacher but the divine Savior. We must also respond to who Jesus is—not just with idle curiosity but with saving faith. They key is to call on him. Regardless of how much faith we may have.

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

God of the Impossible (1 Kings 17:17-24)

A Few Good Men is ranked as one of top 100 movies of all time. It’s a military courtroom drama starring Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Demi Moore, and Kevin Bacon. One of the memorable lines of the movie comes from Lieutenant Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise. He’s the lead defense attorney, and his case against the colonel isn’t going well. After a series of deep frustrations with his co-counsel, Lieutenant Galloway, played by Demi Moore, Kaffee blurts out, “And the hits just keep on coming!” It’s an expression that basically means, “Here we go again!” or “If it’s not one thing, it’s another!”

By the time we meet up with Elijah in 1 Kings 17:17-24, it’s hard not to think of this line, “And the hist just keep on coming!” He’s already had a hard and adventuresome life as a prophet, but we’re just getting started. After several miracles and death-defying adventures, the son of the widow he just rescued becomes deathly ill. Elijah watches his little friend go through the dying process. A few months ago, he saw the brook dry up, and now he sees a young boy’s life dry up, too. Now what? Surprisingly, the widow blames the prophet for her son’s death. For Elijah, the hits just keep on coming.

How do we respond when we get a tongue lashing we don’t deserve? Step into lawyer mode? Defense mode? Return the verbal garbage with garbage of our own? Hurt people tend to hurt people, and Elijah gets wounded here. But he doesn’t seek to wound back. He offers no argument, no rebuke, and no explanation. He does speak, but not to the woman’s tortured logic and agonized questions. Rather, he offers her gentle service and simple burden sharing. Then he gets alone with God and cries out to him for help (1 Kings 17:20), offering up an impossible prayer: “O Lord my God, let this boy’s life return to him!” (1 Kings 17:21b).

It’s one thing to pray for the weather, as Elijah has recently done. It’s another thing to pray for the restoration of life to a dead body. That’s something new. But not only does Elijah pray the impossible prayer, he’s willing to be ceremonially “unclean” in the process by stretching himself out on the boy three times (1 Kings 17:21a). It was a form of sacrificial intercession in the face of a desperate situation. Happily, the Lord heard Elijah’s cry, and the boy’s life returned to him (1 Kings 17:22). It’s the first resurrection of Scripture. Thankfully, it’s not the last.

How do we face an impossible situation today? Like Elijah, we can get alone with God. We can pour out our problems to the Lord. We can strive for patient endurance and calm assurance amid the hits. And we can wait for God to act, receiving his deliverance in due course. Like Elijah, we can be fully persuaded that hope never dies because the God of the impossible lives. Patient endurance, then, is well founded. Teresa of Avila was a Carmelite nun who lived in the 1500s. She wrote a verse that John Michael Talbot made into a song in our day:

Let nothing trouble you.
Let nothing frighten you.
For everything passes but God will never change.
Patient endurance will obtain everything
Whoever has God, wants for nothing at all.
God alone is enough. God alone is enough.
Whoever has God, wants for nothing at all.

One day the hits will stop coming. Jesus made sure of that. On the cross, he was willing to become truly “unclean” for us, dying for our sin. But on the third day, he rose again from the dead, having told his followers, “Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19). Today he puts his infinite resources at the disposal of those who, like Elijah, pray in righteousness and faith. That’s how we hit back at the hits.

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Turning the Tables, Part 4: Breaking Bread at Bethsaida (Luke 9:10-17)

If you’ve ever given a significant amount of your time and energy to serve the Lord and help his church accomplish its mission, then maybe you’ve wondered on occasion if it’s all worth it. Maybe you’re simply exhausted from all the (sometimes thankless) hours you put in as a volunteer. Maybe your theme song in life goes something like this:

Mary had a little lamb,
It would have been a sheep;
But it joined an evangelical church, 
And died from lack of sleep.

Or as one church bulletin blooper put it: “Don’t let stress kill you. Let the church help.”

So many ministry events, so little time. So many service opportunities, so little energy. One can hardly blame the disciples for seeing five thousand men (perhaps twenty thousand people in all) needing food and care, and saying, “Send them away!” 

We find ourselves saying the same thing sometimes. The sheer volume of needs around us can make us want to give up. The tank is empty. The well is dry. We get drained. We get burned out, and there’s nothing left to go on with. Joy erodes, and the marks of our personhood are rubbed raw.

Remarkably, Jesus doesn’t send the crowds away. People are not a burden to him (even the needy ones), so he doesn’t dismiss them. He wants them to draw near to him, and he treats them with compassion. Nor does Jesus let his disciples send them away. Rather, he says, “You give them something to eat.” This is where Jesus’ followers come in. 

We learn here that our first response to the needs of others is not to measure our resources, but to consider God’s resources. When Jesus tells us to do something hard, we “act as if we can even if we feel like we can’t.” That’s when the miracle of multiplication takes place, and he swallows up our need with his infinite supply. To put it simply, Kingdom hospitality is letting Jesus be gracious through you. 

So, what’s your hospitality quotient? Who’s at your table? Who does God want at your table? Who does he want you to feed?

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.